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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Linus and the Queen Snakes

When I was a kid, I’d read the daily comic strip Peanuts in the papers. I may have been too young to understand its genius, but the classic image of Lucy pulling away the football just before Charlie Brown kicks it is too good for anyone to ignore. But another Peanuts tidbit always stuck with me – occasionally, Linus would find a branch on the ground and mistake it for a Queen Snake.

Until very recently, it never registered that a Queen Snake was in fact a real animal, and no different from the Rough Greens and Black Rats I’d been finding for several weeks. Yet, like so many species for me, it seemed so far out of reach. So when Ali and I met up with Duke University professor Jeff Pippen to find some herps at his old transect sites, we had a mission in the back of our minds: we must find a Queen Snake.

Of course, as often happens in life, we came up empty. The old plywood boards had rotted away and the salamanders they once held had ventured underground to await another season. We did find one large Five-lined Skink, but we couldn’t find the snakes we so craved. At one of the sites, we found this Eastern Fence Lizard chilling on a log right in front of us. It didn’t seem to mind us standing there photograph it, and we were only happy to oblige.

Pretty cool, but not what we came for.

Eventually, we ended up at a large field littered with plywood and tins to flip. As Jeff grabbed the corner of one of the boards, he let out a small “woah.” He’s a seasoned pro, and he’s not about to let a sight like this faze him. Under the very corner he’d just lifted lay a fat, coiled Copperhead.

Better to stay cool than make it angry. You won't like it when it's angry.

Copperheads are by far the most common venomous snake we get in these parts, but for some reason I’ve not come across one in some time. Perhaps I’ve just been looking in the wrong places, but here on the edge of the forest under a bit of wood seems to’ve been the perfect spot for this snake. As with any venomous snake, we respected its space and photographed it from a distance. Well, not too far a distance – I mean, I did want an awesome shot!

Awesomely enough, the song "Copperhead Road" came on the radio as we were driving home!

Flipping more boards revealed networks of tunnels likely dug by Hispid Cotton Rats, pretty much the default rodent around here. That doesn’t escape the notice of our local snakes, because one flip later we found this guy curled up next to a small mammal nest of dried grasses. He was a Mole Kingsnake, a rather secretive serpent that prefers to burrow underground rather than cruise in the open. Luckily, he happened to be curled up in a couple mammal tunnels, and we were able to check him out at close range.

Apparently not a snake you get to see every day - lucky me!

After our success at the transects, Ali and I decided to check one more spot – the Korstian Division of Duke Forest, a great place by any means. Mostly I’ll bird there, but recently the herping hasn’t been bad either. In fact, just a couple hundred yards down the trail we found this nice Ground Skink among the leaf litter.

And moved him out to the trail for better pictures of course!

As I lay on the trail to photograph him, the skink stopped scurrying away, and started towards me – apparently he needed some kind of cover, and I was the closest thing to it! The Ground Skink kept on creeping into my shadow, and I would move to get it in the light again, a kind of tango that lasted for several minutes. Eventually I gave up, content that he was so unwillingly obliging.

No, what're you doing? Get farther away from me!

We walked down to the old wooden bridge and checked the rocks for snakes. Nothing doing, and the nearby dirt path held nothing but Cricket and Pickerel Frogs. Dragonflies zoomed to and fro, taunting us as we continued to search for our quarry. Every once in a while, we’d spot some movement in the trail ahead, only to find a snake plummeting from a tangle of branches just above the water’s surface, disappearing into the rushing creek. Suddenly, Ali stopped in the path – “That’s it!” he exclaimed! “It’s a Queen Snake!”

"It's on the branch. No the branch right in front of you. No, the other branch right in front of you!"

With deftness I didn’t possess, Ali bounded down the river bank and grabbed the snake in what I swear was mid-plummet. While he held it, the Queen Snake tried to bite him like any water snake would, though not as ferociously. As it transferred hands, the snake musked me, and unlike its larger Nerodia cousins, it smelled almost pleasant, like freshly crushed oak leaves.

The things security blankets are made of.

As Ali posed it, I couldn’t help thinking that with its dark olive coloration, the snake could easily be mistaken for a branch. Only, Queen Snakes don’t like to hang out in the middle of paths where Linus would have seen it – perhaps Charles Schulz knew this, and put it in his comic as an in-joke to snake lovers. Or perhaps, like with me, the Queen Snake was an unattainable species that he could only have dreamed about. We’ll never know, but I like to think that maybe the creator of Peanuts was a secret herper. Just maybe.

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